Alexander Toradze will walk out on stage in Meyerhoff Hall next Thursday to tame the man-eating Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, the most gloriously beautiful and astoundingly difficult all works for piano and orchestra.
Toradze lives in South Bend, Ind., but in birth and training he is Russian. Of course.
Most of the pianists who have conquered the Third Rachmaninov's difficulties -- beginning with the composer himself -- have been Russian. Their ability to play technically demanding music has almost come to seem the natural way.
In more than 60 years of international competitions, Russian pianists have consistently won the Ivory Wars, pounding the opposition to smithereens, losing a skirmish only here and there. But now the economic problems that dismantled the Soviet Union threaten the great traditions and the superb training that resulted in Russian pianistic hegemony.
For years Russian artists -- many of them as famous as the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov -- had been leaving the Soviet Union in a blaze of publicized defections or expulsions. But in the few years since perestroika began dissolving authoritarian rule, that tantalizing trickle has become a hemorrhage that threatens Russian cultural life.
"[Lazar] Berman is in Italy; [Dmitri] Bashkirov is in Spain; the Moscow Virtousi are in Madrid; the Bashmet Orchestra is in Paris; and [Stanislas] Bunin is in Tokyo," says the emigre pianist Vladimir Feltsman, who gave several well-publicized concerts in his native country last winter. "Almost anybody with talent is getting out or thinking about it. My prediction for the future is very gloomy."
While educating musicians is not as expensive as building missiles, Soviet pianistic superiority was predicated on state support of the most remarkable free educational system ever built -- a financial commitment to musical education that is staggering by American standards.
"Music and sports were the only things that benefited from communism because -- unlike history or literature -- it's impossible to distort them ideologically," says Ashkenazy, who has returned to his native land several times in the last few years.
Ideology and greatness
Actually, it is ideology that was partly responsible for Soviet pianistic greatness. To several generations of Russian leaders, music was a means of fulfilling two missions: bringing high culture to the masses and demonstrating Soviet cultural superiority to the West by winning instrumental competitions. But proud traditions, superb teaching (especially of the young), disciplined students and economic incentives also helped create more superior pianists in the Soviet Union than in the West.
Improbable as it may seem to American parents who would prefer their children to go into medicine, law or science instead of music, musicians in the old U.S.S.R. earned more money than almost any other profession. For stars such as Toradze, Ashkenazy and Feltsman, music meant travel abroad and the ability to acquire foreign currency and goods. Even for those who only taught, music was a relatively lucrative and rewarding career. At the state-supported children's music schools, for example, teachers earned salaries that were at least equal to those of engineers or doctors; they enjoyed better hours; and they had the opportunity to earn extra money by giving concerts.
"Parents didn't think twice about pushing their children into music," Ashkenazy says.
What often shocks Russian musicians new to the United States is the low regard in which this country holds teaching careers -- particularly that of teaching the young.
"When I came here everybody told me to forget about continuing to teach children," says Victoria Mushkatkol, a Leningrad
Conservatory graduate who now teaches at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, one of the few national institutions that specializes in teaching gifted children. "In Russia it was considered nobler and more important to teach kids when they were younger than when they got to college," she adds.
An early start
It is precisely because the Russians so emphasized early training that they achieved such remarkable success. Students in Russia start at an earlier age than in America and, besides being more accomplished technically, are carefully trained in sight-singing, music theory, music history and harmony by the time they reach college -- which is when American music students often begin those subjects.
"In Russia they have no more talent than we have," says Nelitta True, chairman of the piano department of the Eastman School of Music, who taught at the Leningrad Conservatory two years ago. "The difference is that they don't have any hidden talents and we do -- because American students often haven't acquired the technique to express what they have inside them."